I am always grateful for a timely book. Stumbling upon WHAT IT IS LIKE TO GO TO WAR at Lemuria Bookstore is an answer to a prayer I’ve been asking for years to be answered. My immediate family doesn’t have a history in the military, so patriotism has seemed to me a level of spirituality about history that is odd. Growing into adulthood after 9/11 meant patriotism was the answer to the fear of terror.
In the face of such fear, I opted to participate in the traditions of the people around me out of respect for the community. Without community, we lose our sense of belonging. Traditions are good memorials for humans as we are forgetful in general, but they are good for me specifically because I over analyze anything remotely sentimental. There is often a sense of reverence, mystery, and spirituality that is imbued in the experience of a transcendent tradition. What ritual is more sacred and complex than the act of taking a life out of this world?
Karl Marlantes is a veteran of the Vietnam war and author of the book What It Is Like To Go To War. It is not an easy book to read, by any means. Exploration of the effects of war on the human psyche make me question so much about the necessity for violence. What cruelty requires us to violate the value of life above all else? This is the contradiction that warriors are forced to answer at peril of death.
“It would have been a relief to talk about my terror.”
Marlantes does not hold back on the emotional portraits one can view in the history of warfare. In fact, he criticizes society for its willful ignorance of the long-lasting issues people face after combat. “We don’t talk about death in our society. Even the chaplains. Even when it’s all around us.” The only way killers are able to kill is because they’re enabled. Boot camp removes the societal restraints on the savage part of us that has made us the top animal in the food chain. Only civilians need the luxury of that last civility: the threat of fatality. Warriors are not afforded such grace.
How do soldiers come to terms with stepping outside of conventional moral conduct? There’s no avoiding that there will come guilt over killing and maiming other people. Even in light of such dark reality, Marlantes casts a vision of his ideal warrior: the conscious warrior of the future is going to be a person who sees all humanity as brothers and sisters.
An excellent avenue that is traversed throughout the book gives glimpses of the rationalizations that help reveal the true life of the soldier. There are moments of heroism, though the weight of killing is not ignored. Numbness and violence are discussed wholesale. There are also noble and admirably masculine aspects to the story of the warrior that reflect in Marlantes’ account, rooted in the camaraderie surrounding his growth from individual to unit.
“Fighting on television lasts long enough to entertain people.”
The ultimate aim of this story is to give sunlight to the hard topic of death. Marlantes needed a community of people to survive, and I am grateful to have his account to help me understand the weight of questions surrounding war. It saddens me to think of warfare as a cheap thrill given the permanent costs to life and livelihoods.
This book is required reading for anyone who believe in the United States experiment. The people who serve in our military deserve to know they are understood, even when they feel like it’s impossible to be understood. Bridging that gap is what helps put the warrior to rest. When a child asks, “What is it like to go to war?” the warrior who stays silent has not come home.